Today we will be taking a deep dive into the short story "Coping Mechanism" by Tracy Fells from her collection "The Naming of Moths".
Tracy Fells’ disturbing short story “Coping Mechanism” immerses us into the fracturing psyche of new mother Hannah as she struggles with feelings of inadequacy, isolation, and losing grip on her own identity. As the line between reality and Hannah’s paranoid suspicions blurs, Fells deftly explores the judgement and lack of support women often face when experiencing postpartum challenges.
We first meet Hannah just as the new au pair, Agnes, is set to arrive. Hannah immediately feels threatened that this young, beautiful woman will show her up and “replace” her, setting the tone for the story’s central theme. Descriptions comparing Agnes to folkloric figures like Rapunzel foreshadow dark magical elements seeping into the narrative.
We get a visceral sense of Hannah’s unwinding state of mind. She frequently dreams or fantasizes about her deceased twin sister Helen, with whom Agnes bears an eerie resemblance. Unclear memory blends with metaphor as Hannah’s dreams invade reality: “This dream is a lie. I can no longer squash my flabby baby belly into those jeans and they wouldn’t fit Helen either.”
Hannah becomes obsessed with the belief that Agnes is stealing her belongings, straining her already difficult relationships. Her husband Steven and his mother undermine and accuse Hannah instead of offering care or compassion. We feel Hannah’s isolation acutely—she has no emotional support system.
The spare, haunting prose creates an atmosphere of gothic domesticity. The home that should be Hannah’s refuge becomes increasingly uncanny, with moments of confusion about her own identity: “Why did she call me Helen?” The ending spirals towards a horrifying reveal—it seems the story has slipped fully into a ghostly realm, calling past and present selves into question.
Through this intense character study, Fells highlights the need for empathy and support of new mothers facing mental health challenges.
"Coping Mechanism" stays with you, provoking reflection on how we treat struggling mothers and perception versus reality. Fells skillfully blends searing emotion with an unsettling surrealism, showcasing her talent for distortion and all things darkly compelling.
Grab a copy of The Naming of Moths here.